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Some provisional notes on the materialism of thought, and modernism as “an aesthetics of necessary failure”

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The fundamental question, insofar as modernism is concerned, is what does modernism make its diverse forms say about themselves. Depending on what modernist forms say about themselves — i.e. whether those forms construe, envisage and articulate themselves as myths of non-meaning, non-cogitation and non-thought; or, allegories (in Benjamin’s sense) or symptoms of the same — we need to internally divide modernism into two temporalities, two periodisations and two politico-aesthetic trajectories: fascist (or postmodernist, that is, neoliberal) and critical. And yet, as ‘consumers’ who are already always producers, even the fascistic and/or postmodernist politico-aesthetic temporality of certain modernist forms — something those forms speak as the intentionality of their producers — we need to brush against their own grain.

Brecht brilliantly anticipated that through both his intervention in the famous realism/modernism debate, and through the dramaturgy of his theatrical productions. So, the problem, from where I stand, is not whether a phenomenology of thinking haunts an aesthetic form. The problem for me, instead, is whether or not such a phenomenology is able to found itself in and as its own materiality by finding its own historical index and historicity. This is precisely where Benjamin’s post-phenomenological thinking — contrary to the dominant poststructuralist current that seeks to interpretatively assimilate him to difference-thinking — stands rigorously and radically distinguished from both Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology of thought. The ‘Convolutes N’ of his The Arcades Project unambiguously declares that. And it is precisely such post-phenomenological thinking — in its radical separation from the phenomenology of thought — that Badiou, following Althusser, rightly affirms as the materialism of thought.

What, therefore, needs to be stated here unambiguously is the following: post-phenomenological thinking, or the materialism of thought, is not some premature abandonment of phenomenology of thought. Rather, it amounts to the extenuation of what is sheer phenomenology precisely by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it stands realised as its own materiality in and as the institution of its own duration and historicity. Conversely, sheer phenomenology of thought in its existence is – from this Benjaminian-Badiouian perspective — the incompleteness of its realisation as the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought, and thus the incompleteness of its own extenuation. [As an aside, it must be said here that this reveals how the line that separates mystified revolution, which is mysticism of difference (Fascism, Bonapartism, social democracy and/or neoliberal postmodernism) from revolution as difference demystified is perilously thin.]

If we attend closely to Badiou’s conception of “fidelity to the event”, we will see that what underlies this conception is precisely the move of extenuating phenomenology of thought by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it is its realisation as its own materiality. The event, for Badiou, is not truth, but an interiorised subjective illumination. And yet the event is, for him, indispensably crucial because it enables what he terms fidelity to the event, which in and as its own actuality is the truth of the event in its forcing. That is why, for Badiou, even as the event is not truth; truth is the truth of the event in its forcing. So, for Badiou truth is not the thought of the event. Instead, truth is the event as its own thought in action. And this event as its own thought in action is already the thought or the truth of the event in its forcing. That is precisely why Badiou thinks the event — contra phenomenology of difference and poststructuralism — as neither event of being nor being of event; but as the supernumerary supplement to being that in being identified thus is already always integrated into being. Therefore, for Badiou, the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought is not an out-of-hand rejection of phenomenology of thought. Rather, phenomenology of thought is for him not sheer phenomenology, but is the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought as already always its own limit and thus the already always crossing-of-that-limit.

As a consequence, Badiou’s post-phenomenology or materiality of thought — unlike the post-phenomenology of poststructuralism such as Foucault’s genealogy or Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic ontology – is not a future-anteriority that is retrospectively constructed in, as and through the production of phenomenological effects, which as those effects are no different from the effects produced by Hegelian and Left-Hegelian phenomenologies of identity-as-identity and identity-as-change-of-identity respectively. Badiou’s post-phenomenology is, therefore, clearly, not hermeneutics. Rather, it’s a future-anteriority that is an adventure of construction in being an anticipatory, prefigurative ‘hermeneutic’ thought in action.

Materiality, therefore, cannot be the rejection or abandonment of the idea. That would merely be the inversion of the constitutive diremption — or idealist dialectic — of idea and matter, taking us towards a positivist and vulgar materialism that would continue to confine us within the structure and/or force-field of idealist rationalism. Rather, materiality is the singularising rupture — or rupture as singularity — with that constitutive diremption. This means materiality is the moment of the idea in its emerging as the instantiation of its own absence as the cause of such emerging. In other words, materiality is about the inseparability — and thus singularity — of matter and its idea. Hence, it’s also the movement that is constitutive of prefiguring the overcoming of its interruption by anticipating the limit this movement generates by virtue of precisely being that movement. Materiality then is, as its own (immanent) thought, the already always grasping of its own limit.

This, in my view, is what one learns from the poems of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, particularly Alberto Caeiro’s; Badiou’s rigorously engaged reading of the same, and Adorno’s explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.
In fact, it is in this context of materiality being its own (immanent) thought as the already always grasping of its own limit that Adorno’s conception and explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure needs to be situated and made sense of. Modernist forms as forms of non-meaning, non-thought and non-cogitation, vis-à-vis the forms of historical-realist meaning and sense, do not call on us to approach them in a melancholic contemplation imbued by “aecidia” — something that Benjamin warned against. Such forms call on us, instead, to approach them, as Benjamin would have us believe, by intensifying our contemplation of them to such an extent that such contemplative thought turns into its radical opposite: the thought of historcisation that is, therefore, thought in action. This is thought immanent to being now-time; or, ontological subtraction as its own thought in action. Therefore, to grasp modernist forms in terms of Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure is to see how such forms call on us – regardless of what the intentionality of their respective producers is or was – to grasp themselves as something that must already always be exceeded.

Clearly, Adorno’s conception of modernism is in line with Benjamin’s deployment of Schlegel’s romantic conception of aesthetic criticism, wherein a work of art is, at once, itself and an articulation of its own criticism. This is also what Brecht, through the conception and practice of his V-effect, points towards, as does Badiou through his “inaesthetic” conception of art as the real of reflection.

Benjamin’s aforementioned approach to the question of art is, admittedly, from the side of the producer. And that is largely true of Brecht too. But do such approaches of Benjamin and Brecht not, therefore, imply that the consumer is already always the producer, and that he/she thus reads forms not as forms, which would reduce the question of form to that of sheer style, but as modes. To read form as mode is to read form as the transparency of its own formation. We would do well to pay attention to Andre Breton’ glass-house in Nadja, the one he wished to inhabit as a writer, and which Benjamin also affirmatively alludes to in his essay on Surrealism. Thus, to read a form as a mode is to grasp it as the determinate excess of form, and subtraction from the abstract logic of formalism that the concrete form, which is being thus exceeded, mediates.

To read form as mode is to grasp a form as articulating its own criticism, and thereby already always being its own excess and voiding. Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure, not unlike Badiou’s inaesthetics, amounts precisely to that. What Benjamin and Brecht merely imply for the consumer’s side through their insistence that the producer of a form have that form articulate itself as mode, stands cogently formulated as the consumer’s task in Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.

Clearly, Benjamin and Brecht on one hand, and Badiou and Adorno on the other, together complete the asymmetrical or singular dialectic of productive consumption and consumptive production that Marx clearly indicated while laying bare that same dialectic as the symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic of capital.

In such circumstances, I don’t feel like quibbling much when I am confronted with a certain heuristically recursive reading of this conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from saying that this conception as the concept that it already is, operates at the modal, not formal, level of abstraction. As a result, this theory is an affirmation of itself in and as its singular temporality and mode by already always being an articulation of the criticism of its own discursive-formal specificity that interrupts its singularity precisely in instantiating it. So, unless one’s insistence about the Adornoesque conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure itself being a necessary failure proceeds through such specification, it runs the risk of becoming a theoretical argument for founding a ‘new’ historicist aesthetics – or, an aesthetics for a ‘new’ historical realism.

Of course, I have my share of problems with Adorno. The way he explicates his concepts of negative dialectics and constellation demonstrates the dialectic as the mode of presentation of its own negativity. This clearly points us towards thinking the dialectic as the affirmative mode of determinate presentation of its own void, and thus excess, in its limit.

In other words, Adorno’s concepts of negative dialectics and constellation clearly point towards thinking (and envisaging) a new order of affirmation that is non-productive. And yet Adorno himself is not able to fully see what his concepts point towards, and walk that path of thinking (and envisaging) affirmation as a non-productive order of ‘being’. His concepts of negative dialectics and constellation show he understands that negativity can escape from its Hegelian dialectical inscription only if it’s thought in terms of the uninterruptedness of destruction. And yet he cannot understand how such an (im)possibility can actually happen. That is because he is unable to think of negativity in terms other than that of destruction. In other words, we find him unable to think negativity in terms of adventurous constructionism of subtraction as an actuality, which would be the actuality of destruction in its uninterrupted ceaselessness. It is not for nothing that Badiou conceptualises and envisages subtraction as that which is the articulation of destructive antagonism towards the sublationary force-field of the (idealist) dialectic. This is why Badiou terms his subtractive affirmationism political negativity.

In such circumstances, Adorno’s failure to think the happening of the (im)possible, which his “negative dialectics” conceptually articulates, can possibly only be ascribed to the limit imposed on his thought by its objective conjunctural location. This failure of his to draw the non-productive affirmative consequences from his own concepts of negative dialectics and constellation is clearly evident in his melancholic conception of the “totally administered society”. Something that then risks generating its own obverse: the Heidegger-like affirmation qua the irrationality of poetic-thinking, and the deconstructive infinite finitudes. And yet, unless we are able to arrive at this criticism of Adorno by showing how his concept of negative dialectics frees negativity of determination from being merely the negation of determination to become its own moment of presentation as negativity, we won’t be able to think and envisage the non-productive order of affirmation in and against the productivity of capital. And that, ironically enough, would make us bring the Heideggerian deconstruction, we strive to throw out of the front door, back in through the rear window.

The heuristic-recursive insistence that we see Adorno’s modernist conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure unwittingly risks upholding the ways of deconstruction, and the infinite regress that is concomitant with it. This, as far as aesthetic production within a Marxist field is concerned, could easily compel artists to submit their productive activity, paradoxically enough, to a kind of Lukacsian aesthetic imperative of historical realism.


Why rights-centric politics is not a politics of freedom

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Exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is not in and by itself value (and value-relations). Rather, exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is appearance or representation of the essence of capital that is value (and value-relations). Hence, juridical rationality — or rights — is the appearance or representation of the arbitrary and irrational operation of social power but is not in itself that mode or structure of arbitrary and irrational (and hence entirely political) operation. Conversely, even as value-relations as the arbitrary operation of social power necessarily inform exchange-relations and the juridical rationality of rights in their constitution, the former is irreducible to the latter.

In other words, even as the essence (value or arbitrary operation of social power) must and does appear (as exchange-value or juridical rationality of rights), appearance (exchange-value or rights) is not the essence (value, or social power in its arbitrary operation). That is demonstrated with a fair bit of clarity by Marx in the first volume of Capital. The problem with a political subject that envisions freedom as right is that it misses this dialectic between essence and appearance, and thus hypostatises the essence into its appearance – or, conflates essence with appearance. The politics of rights then is no more than exertions to correct (reform) the asymmetries of exchange, which presupposes the legitimacy and continuance of the rationality of exchange-value, and thus the legitimacy and continuance of the irrationality of value-relations that is the former’s constitutive mode.

Such politics of rights, needless to say, serves to reproduce and reinforce exchange-relations and its constitutive value-relational mode by merely displacing rights deprivation to yet another historically concrete moment or location of the capitalist social being. In other words, the subject that envisages politics in terms of demanding rights is one that is interpellated and articulated by the logic and structure of value-relations. Its politics of making a concrete moment of exchange less asymmetrical succeeds, if at all, by way of increasing the asymmetry in yet another (qualitatively old or new) concrete moment of exchange. This is precisely what technical recomposition of social labour by capital, through its re-segmentation, amounts to. In such circumstances, a politics driven by demand for various rights – including workers’ rights – cannot be affirmed and embraced as the politics of the working class. In its basic impulses, such politics is petty bourgeois, reformist and restorative, not proletarian and revolutionary. The ‘understanding’ of political economy that animates such political impulses is deeply Ricardian, and not at all Marxist.

That is, however, not to claim that the question of rights-deprivation stands rejected from the standpoint of revolutionary working-class politics and Marxism. But, for a Marxist, there is surely the need to distinguish between rights-deprivation — as an objective systemic fact and a concomitant subjective experience — being an inescapable question for working-class politics, and the politics driven by demand for rights. Only a liberal dimwit or nincompoop would think they are one and the same thing. And that the abandonment of one is tantamount to the jettisoning of the other. Rights-deprivation is a revolutionary question not because a politics ought to be made out of demanding the absent rights – the rights one is deprived of. Rather, it’s a revolutionary question because it enables one to cognitively access and concretely target value-relations (or the arbitrary, and thus entirely political, operation of social power) in and through their determinate appearance as (or mediation by) a particular exchange-relation whose particular asymmetry is what the absence or deprivation of a particular right amounts to.

This, among other things, demonstrates how a group of rights-deprived individual subjects could grasp and seeks to actualise the social subject sedimented in its individual selfhood or subjecthood precisely through the concrete experience of right-deprivation that is constitutive of that particular subjecthood in its individualised salience. What this, in other words, means is that the individual right-deprived subject is egged on by his/her experience of being thus right-deprived to struggle, not for the winning over of the absent right for that individual subjecthood, but for the destruction of the value-relation that is represented by the concrete exchange- relation constitutive of that particular individual subjecthood and its objective factuality and subjective experience of being deprived of the particular right in question. Clearly, such destruction would also mean the disavowal of the particular individual selfhood/subjecthood that experiences the particular right-deprivation in the first place because that individual selfhood/subjecthood is constitutive of value-relations that are sought to be destroyed by accessing those relations through their mediation by the particular exchange-relation in question that determinately instantiates the value-relations.

What this operation of the social subject actualising itself evidently means is that such individualised subjecthood, precisely on account of its constitutive experience of rights-deprivation, risks its existence as that individualised subject to emerge as the social subject that tends towards abolishing the structure of value-relations in and through its determinate representation by a concrete instance of right-deprivation (or asymmetry of exchange). Clearly, the operation constitutive of such risking of existence of individualised subjecthood – the agentic subjecthood of rights – is a politics not of ending various particularities of rights-deprivation. Rather, it’s a politics of abolishing the general condition of such particular and particularised rights-deprivations – and the juridical realm of exchange they are integral parts of — through and in its constantly shifting determinate instantiations. Hence, one must think freedom as risk, not as a right.

The difference between politics of freedom as right and politics of freedom as risk is then the radical modal difference between two kinds of intervention on the same concretely apparent terrain of exchange-relations. The former driven towards ending particular rights-deprivation by demanding the absent rights, the latter geared towards unravelling value-relations, and its concomitant force-field, which constitute the condition of possibility of juridical rationality of rights – and thus rights-deprivation – in their determinate instantiation in and as a particular case of rights-deprivation. It’s in this latter sense, and not in the former, that one ought to understand, among other things, Benjamin’s insistence about every moment in history being a strait-gate through which the messiah can come in.

It must also be mentioned here that legal equality has as its necessary condition of possibility substantive/social inequality. Besides, the former in its existence also acts back upon the latter to reproduce and further reinforce it. If one attends to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — to say nothing of his brilliant demonstration in Capital of how concrete labours (qualitative singularities) are rendered differential quantities of “human labour in the abstract” through qualitative equalisation — even half carefully, one would see that.

Immediate forms of oppression in the capitalist social formation get registered as rights-deprivation and legal inequality. But such registration is, for subjects of struggle against those forms of oppression, precisely part of the problem and not its overcoming. Struggles against oppressions must be struggles against the structure of exploitation, which is the necessary condition of possibility of various concrete forms of oppression, and not struggles for rights and legal equality. Subjects struggling against various forms of oppression must recognise those oppressions for what they are — that is, oppressions — and call them by their name, and not register them in their subjectivity as legal inequalities to be remedied.

Prayer as Revolution, Revolution as Prayer

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Prayer, thought in its extreme, is dystopian irony. That is because it’s a radically pessimistic act, and thus act as such in its pure immanence. The act of praying comes into being, and perseveres in itself as that act, precisely by disavowing all that is (and, in advance, all that can and will be ‘that is’). For, when one prays, is it not for that which is not? And does that, therefore, not render prayer in its impersonal genericness as the pursuit of the real that is not mortal reality? It is thus an act that can only proceed through disavowal of all mortal hope, and is yet an act. Prayer, therefore, is an earthly, mortal act that proceeds both despite and because of the lack of mortal hope.

That prayer is an act constitutive of the negation of all mortal hope, even as it proceeds affirmatively precisely through such hope, renders it a dystopia that is ironical in its dystopianism. Prayer, therefore, is an act that is in its affirmation ceaseless precisely because its motor is that of absolute, unmitigated pessimism. Or, conversely, prayer is a mortal act that is impelled by a hope that is in excess of all hope one can be mortally conscious of. It’s driven in its affirmation, to borrow Kafka’s messianic language, by the fact of there being infinite hope that is not for us. It is, to borrow from Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, an act that proceeds in and through the dialectic of “rumour and folly”. In other words, it’s the dialectic of faith and doubt — or faith as doubt .

Thus prayer is not merely faith, it’s reason too. For, reason pushed to its radical extreme is nothing but the excess of all mortal (and moral-normative) determinations, the hope they induce, and their power. Prayer as this radically pessimistic — this ironically dystopian — act is the mode of singularisation of faith and reason (faith as the coming-into-being of reason a la Thomas Muenzer). Prayer then is the act that doubts the consciousness of hope of its concrete mortal agents through which it must nevertheless necessarily proceed.

And what of redemption? Is that not the goal of prayer? Without doubt! But that goal of prayer is prayer itself: prayer as its own goal. Hence, redemption is the world as the act of prayer persevering in itself. More precisely, redemption is the world in and as the mode taking-place and thus in radical antagonism to world in and as the mode having-taken-place. For, insofar as the world in mode taking-place is interruption of the world in mode having-taken-place, it’s redemption. This is what a Spinozist utra-rationalist faith — seemingly an aporia — would arguably amount to. One that is far more rigorous in its post-phenomenological radicalism than the experiential and phenomenological radicalism of Nietzsche’s anti-rationalist “will to power”.

In such circumstances, one can speak legitimately of prayer as redemption — i.e. if prayer is not to remain mere illumination by existing only in the interiority of thought and experience, but appear as the in-existence/in-existing it thus is vis-a-vis the world in its existence/existing — only if one speaks the revolution. In other words, while prayer (as illumination) is the practice of thinking, and thus experiencing, the redemption to come, redemption, or revolution, is the prayer as its own immanent thought (or, experience) in action. So, revolution is fundamentally an affirmation, not a negation. Such affirmation is, however, not simply an assertion and celebration. It is, instead, the negativity or void in and as the time of its own determinate presentation or taking-place. and thus an excess of what exists. This is in radical contrast to negativity simply being the negation of what is. Revolution is, therefore, the actuality — or shall we say, profanation — of this ironically dystopian modality of prayer in its radical, and thus messianic and exilic, form. Therefore, revolution as its own affirmation can only be more revolution: Marx’s “revolution in permanence”.

What does it mean for science to find, not seek?

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“Personally, I have never regarded myself as a researcher. As Picasso once said, to the shocked surprise of those around him—I do not seek, I find.
“Indeed, there are in the field of so-called scientific research two domains that can quite easily be recognized, that in which one seeks, and that in which one finds.
“Curiously enough, this corresponds to a fairly well defined frontier between what may and may not qualify as science. Furthermore, there is no doubt some affinity between the research that seeks and the religious register. In the religious register, the phrase is often used—You would not seek me if you had not already found me. The already found is already behind, but stricken by something like oblivion. Is it not, then, a complaisant, endless search that is then opened up?”
–Lacan, ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’

Is science — or more precisely scientificity — to be thought in terms of discovery and recognition, and thus in terms of knowledge in an epistemological sense? Or, is it to be thought in terms of invention, and thus in terms of action in its praxical sense? Science as that which is recognised and determined by thought? Or, science as thought in and as its own action? Science as thought in its capture by the cogito? Or, science as thought in its escape from such cogitative capture? These are clearly two radically distinct levels of abstraction and two equally radically separate temporalities of the dialectic, which are being constantly produced in and through the internal division of the dialectic itself. That, to my mind, is basically what is at stake here. And if we say, in agreement with Lacan, that the approach to the question of science can and must only be the latter, then how do we grapple with the problem of knowledge within such a conception of science and scientificity? What does such an understanding of science — and scientificity — do to our conceptions of knowledge and the epistemic? Does it lead us then to abandon, just like the phenomenologists of difference, the very idea of knowledge and the epistemic? Or, is the category of knowledge retained through an alteration — shall we say a radical alteration — of its status, function and conception? And what then does such alteration of status, function and conception of knowledge amount to in opposition to its more traditional epistemological status, function and conception? Should we then here not think the status and function of the concept as symptom (in the Lacano-Althusserian sense) and/or allegory (in the Benjaminian sense), as opposed to thinking them as epistemology?

Written by Pothik Ghosh

August 22, 2015 at 8:42 am

Historical Materialism is “Historicity without History” but it is not, therefore, Genealogy

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Historical materialism is historicity without history. And yet it is by no means genealogy. Of course, isnofar as it is historicity without history — which is the historicity of politics as permanent excess — historical materialism as a historiographical textuality is bound to have a genealogical form. But thought in terms of its practical actuality, the historicity of genealogy is merely a facticity or phenomenality of interiorised experience of difference. Precisely for this reason, genealogy is no more than the obverse of historicism. On the other hand, the historicity of historical materialism is now-time as the uninterrupted ongoingness of determinate excess of presence in its historical index — i.e. infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference in its historical index.

The two citations below — from Adorno and Benjamin respectively — enable one to think this radical distinction between post-Hegelian phenomenology of Heidegger, and historical materialism, and thus, by extension, between genealogy (a phenomenologically reductive hermeneutic of difference) and historical materialism:

“…[Benjamin] seems to converge with the general intellectual current which protested against idealism and epistemology, demanding ‘the things themselves’ instead of their conceptual form, and which found an academically respectable expression in phenomenology and the ontological schools stemming from it. But the decisive differences between philosophers have always consisted in nuances; what is most bitterly irreconcilable is that which is similar but which thrives on different centres; and Benjamin’s relation to today’s accepted ideologies of the ‘concrete’ is no different. He saw through them as the mere mask of conceptual thinking at its wits end, just as he also rejected the existential-ontological concept of history as the mere distillate left after the substance of the historical dialectic had been boiled away.”
–Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ (Prisms)

“What distinguishes images from the “essences” of phenomenology is their historical index. (Heidegger seeks in vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly through “historicity”.)….”
— Benjamin, Convolutes N, ‘On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress’ (The Arcades Project)

Between Left-Hegelian Anthropology and Marx’s Materialist Dialectic: Some Random Observations on C.L.R. James

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The transfer of philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is one of C.L.R. James’s key theoretical proposals in Notes on Dialectics. He clearly states as much in the third paragraph of page 17 of the book: “Let us transfer this [the categories] to the labor movement. (These transfers are rough but Hegel intended them to be made. That is precisely what logic is, an algebra, but an algebra in constant movement.) ‘Categories’ of the labor movement are, I repeat, union, reformist party, reformist international, revolutionary party, revolutionary international, etc.” This proposal and insistence to transfer philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is, I would argue, typical of the Left-Hegelian modality of “contemplative materialism” that Marx criticised in Feurbach’s critique of Hegel. This immediate way of transferring philosophical categories into political practice renders the dialectic a methodological foundation — which is no more than the obverse of dialectic as a (metaphysical) system in Hegel. This, I must say once again, is not the break that the materialist dialectic amounts to. The materialist dialectic, if I allow myself another repetition, is dialectic as the determinate presentation of its asymmetry, which is to say, the dialectic as the determinate presentation of the excess of itself as an abstracted structure. In other words, thinking the dialectic in materialist terms is to think it as an image of the actuality of its own asymmetry. It is to think dialectic as an image of “dialectics at a standstill” (Benjamin). In that context, the modality of the dialectic as a methodological foundation means, among other things, that one does not grasp knowledge as the limit-form of practice (knowledge as praxis in its limit on account of its determinate condition) but rather grasps knowledge as the realisation of practice or praxis. In fact, in this instance, practice and praxis stand conflated. It must also be mentioned here that the algebraic modeling of movement – something that James, as an avowed follower of Hegel, proposes here – is yet another instance that shows how knowledge is, for him, supposed to be grasped as the realisation of practice and not as the latter’s limit-form.

It is for this reason that one critically terms this, following Marx of The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach, “contemplative materialism”. The only difference between this modality of contemplative-materialist thinking and practice, and that of Hegelian dialectical idealism is that while in the latter practice is realisation of knowledge (the infinity of the geist grasped in and as its finite concrete realization), in the former knowledge is grasped and envisaged in terms of realisation of practice. In either case, knowledge is not seen as the interruption of praxis on account of its determinateness. What merely happens is that from the a priori idea or geist of the latter the locus of ontological expressivity shifts to the historically concrete human agency of practice and the thinking of practice by its historically particular human agency in the former. The result of this shift of the ontological locus of expressivity from a priori idea to a historically concrete practice in terms of how it’s thought by its historically concrete human agency is no more than the radicalisation of the successive continuity of movement that is capital. And what this radicalisation of the successively continuous movement basically amounts to in terms of politics is no more than continuous democratisation of value-relation being mistaken for the real movement in its uninterruptedness, which should actually amount to the suspension of the logic of value-relation itself, and not its continuous democratisation. That James tends to oscillate from one to the other — the real real movement and the mistaken real movement — is often evident in his directly programmatic political writings. We come across this oscillation of James in, for example, ‘Every Cook Can Govern’, particularly when tries to demonstrate how the form of direct democracy as practised in the Athens of classical antiquity is the almost fully-developed political form of revolutionary democracy that socialism is supposed to replicate.

Therefore, in this mode of thinking there is no attempt to grasp a determinate historical practice in terms of its own immanent thought by detaching it from the sense it acquires in the thought of the historically concrete human agency or agentic-subject that, from the perspective of such “practical-materialist” (Marx’s words) modality of thinking practice, would merely be the historical index and anthropological register of its determinate praxis (practice as its own immanent thought in action). Clearly, this particular modality of thinking practice — wherein a historically concrete practice is thought necessarily only in terms of the sense it is given by its historically concrete agentic-subject — has its basis in an expresivist-ontological conception. And it’s due to this particular modality of upholding the centrality of practice that such thinking is arguably termed “contemplative materialism”. That is precisely the reason why both Hegelianism and such Left-Hegelianism, which has as one of its foundational proposals the immediate transfer of philosophical categories to political practice, inhabit the the same Hegelian idealist paradigm as the obverse of one another. And that is precisely why the difference in the respective political practices they generate is the difference between liberal-conservatism and radical republicanism and/or social democracy. A difference, if I I am allowed to be telegraphic here, objectively amounts to little in this late capitalist or neoliberal conjuncture.

Of course, I’m not saying that this expressivist thinking of the dialectic as a trans-epochal method is all that there is to Notes on Dialectics. The work is choc-a-block with many many brilliant insights into what the ‘structure’ of dialectical thinking as a rigorous articulation of materialism amounts to. Here is one from Part II of the book: “In reading on ‘Quality’ in the ‘Doctrine of Being’, Lenin writes in very large writing:





“This obviously hit him hard. He wanted it stuck down in his head, to remember it, always. He makes a note on it as follows:

“At the basis of the concept of gradualness of emergence lies the idea that the emerging is already sensuously or really in existence, only on account of its smallness not yet perceptible and likewise with the concept of the gradualness of disappearance.”

Now this acute observation of James’s unambiguously indicates that humanity as fully realised sensuousness can be generic only in its construction, and not in the Left-Hegelian (mainly Feurbachian) humanist sense of being an a priori expressivist ontology and/or the dialectic as a transhistorical methodological ground. This observation of James shows that if one is faithful to Marx, especially the Marx of Capital and Grundrisse, one can never think of the dialectic as a method, much less as a system. Fredric Jameson too says as much in the opening essays of his book, ‘Valences of the Dialectic’. Instead, one has to think of the dialectic, as Marx clearly does in his ‘Afterword to the Second German Edition’ of Capital, Volume I, as the presentation of precisely the determinate excess of itself as an abstracted structure. Hence, the dialectic, when one is in strict fidelity to the Marx of Capital, is not symmetrical, something that both Hegel through the neurosis of his dialectical thinking, and his apparent Left-Hegelians and/or Marxist-Humanist overturners would insist. It is, rather, asymmetrical and thus materialist.

It’s because of such keen insights into the materialist nature of the dialectic in Marx (and Lenin) that I like this book by James, even as I wonder; why then does he continue, more often than not, to swing towards a kind of Marxist-Humanism. After all, it’s not for nothing that James chooses to concentrate on Hegel’s Logic, and not Phenomenology.

Yet, there is no denying his oscillation between that and a Left-Hegelian-type expressivist dialectical anthropology. Therefore, for all its brilliant and lucid insights into the structure and nature of the materialist dialectic, this work by James does not, for me, constitute a decisive break with the Left-Hegelian, expressivist articulation of dialectics,. The former, as far as I am concerned, is in James’s thinking tainted by the latter. It is, therefore, no accident that James described himself as a Marxist-Humanist.

Yakub Memon’s Impending Execution in the Light of a Passage from Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ Read through a Marxist Prism

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“The public execution did not re-establish justice, it reactivated power. In the seventeenth century, and even in the early eighteenth century, it was not, therefore, with all its theatre of terror, a lingering hang-over from an earlier age. Its ruthlessness, its spectacle, its physical violence, its unbalanced play of forces, its meticulous ceremonial, its entire apparatus were inscribed in the political functioning of the penal system.”
–Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Yakub Memon’s execution will, therefore, be no aberration of our penal system. It will be an exception that is meant precisely to enable the reproduction, through confirmation, of the norm of everydayness of terror that is modernity, and capital. Albeit one that now openly displays its irrational, exceptional and coercive kernel, thanks to this being its historically concrete moment of crisis.

This phenomenon is, therefore, nothing but the norm as an unconcealed and unconcealable neurotic symptom: the norm itself as the demonstration of the crisis of normativity and normalisation. As a result, it now comes across even in its appearance as the entirely arbitrary political functionality that founds, underpins and animates the economy/rationality of the modern penal system.

Hence, let not our outrage — that is produced by the scale and magnitude of the phenomenon at hand — blind us to that. For, that would also blind us to the reformist purport of liberal politics that lies at the heart of such outrage. Instead, let us temper that outrage into a steely resolve to exceed and abolish capital and the modern state — which is nothing but the grammar of capitalist social relations, or the qualitatively equalising and thus distributionist value-relation to be precise, in its institutional congealment. After all, it’s precisely this distributionist dimension of the law of value that, as far as the modern state in its liberal-democratic Indian specificity is concerned, is the objective material basis of the ideological dominance of, among other things, Islamophobia. The ideology that evidently informs the dogged pursuit of capital punishment for somebody such as Yakub Memon.

In other words, let the cry for the abolition of death penalty, which has been sparked off by Yakub Memon’s imminent execution, not remain a weak human rights-based reactive demand placed on the Indian state. Let us strive, instead, to transform that cry into a strong call for constructing a concretely collective political project that seeks, in the here and now, to determinately abolish the state. For, the modern state in being the embodiment and operationalisation of the rule of law is genetically programmed to do precisely that which it currently seeks to accomplish in the specificity of its Indian incarnation: reinforce its monopoly over violence by re-establishing the slave-morality of ressentiment (revenge) as justice.

This is, clearly, a juridico-legal morality that is, therefore, an inseparable and integral ideological dimension of the capitalist social formation constitutive of the structure of mutual competition for domination, and its reproduction. To not grasp that and to insist on envisaging the abolition of death penalty as a human rights-based demand amounts to a blundering failure to recognise that the Benjaminian “divine” or “law-unraveling violence” rests in an embryonic form within this cry for the abolition of death penalty. And to not recognise that is to already repress that potential and distort it into “lawmaking violence”, which faces off “law-preserving violence” of the state merely as its constitutive antithesis. Not for nothing does such human rights-based ‘politics’ presuppose the conceptual and thus concrete validity of the modern state — and the juridico-legal social formation of which such a state is both an effect and reinforcing cause — that it ‘confronts’ with its politics of demand. In the ultimate analysis, such politics ends up, not surprisingly, reinforcing and reproducing the condition of possibility of precisely those enormities it claims to want to eliminate.

So, let’s not allow our outrage to be a cathartic expenditure and exhaustion of politics. Rather, let it simmer like a slow fire over which we forge the concrete strategy of how (our) red ‘terror’ can emerge with full antagonistic force against the epochal social power that orientates and articulates the continuous norming and normalisation of (their) white terror.

The essence of what one has articulated here in a hurriedly clumsy manner is put forth with elegance and aphoristic precision by Walter Benjamin in the last two sentences of his VIII thesis on philosophy of history: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”

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